Tuesday, August 24, 2010

As Spirit Descends Into Flesh

How do you feel about your spiritual life when you’re naked and have an erection?

When you connect to the Source of your being–whether through prayer, meditation, corporate worship, or a walk in the woods–can your erotic energy still flow freely? Or else, between the Hot and the Holy, is there a great gulf fixed?

Christianity in its mainstream packaging succeeds, more often than not, in setting up the erotic and the spiritual as polar opposites–and ironically so, since the tradition is founded on a paradoxical belief that the infinite life of the Divine has joined itself to the world of matter and of flesh.

For some, the conflict remains irreconcilable. Everything I’ve read of the work of Andrew Holleran, an accomplished and much-admired gay writer of the last thirty-five years, has seemed to me predicated on the arid notion that a life engaged with the flesh can only be lived at the expense of a lost, nostalgically charged purity. If his characters succeed in redeeming themselves, they do so only by renouncing a sensuality that, however alluring, finally proves to be shallow and unsustainable. As evocative as his prose can be, his characters’ growth and deeper integration seems endlessly arrested by the closet wall running down the middle of their souls.

But the sharp dichotomy hardly does justice to the complexity of some gay men’s experience. In reviewing my own spiritual biography, a desire for God has been folded over in complex ways since my early childhood with my bodily longing for men.

I don’t recall how, when I was five, the object of my adoration entered the hospital room. He simply materialized at my bedside. He subsists in my memory like the resurrected Jesus walking through a locked door to greet his cowering disciples, supported on a sea of half-conscious associations, a macho angel with a heavy five-o’clock shadow. Extraordinarily loquacious five-year-old that I was, bent on engaging whatever adult I faced, determined to charm them into sustaining me, I was utterly reduced to fascinated silence. His blue cheek and jet-black hair hovered just out of reach as he sat down. He must have been twenty-four or twenty-five, a third-year seminarian, less than half my present age, with the pastoral and spiritual sophistication of, well, the average devout seminarian. But for me, he was ageless, or the perfect age of the perfect man–once more like the risen Christ. I fantasize now, fifty years later, that his eyes were dark brown, his skin pale, his build solid but trim, slightly shorter than my adult height–but that’s pure erotic riff. He must have greeted me by name. More importantly, he named himself: “I’m Vicar Riehl.”

So much for the essential core of my memory. No conversation. He finally suggested we pray together, perhaps relieved to close a routine hospital visit, frustrated that he could elicit so little response from me. Or maybe the silence only seemed to me to last forever. Did he take my reticence as his own lack of rapport with a peculiarly silent yet uncomfortably intense child? Did he read in it my fear of the hospital, or anxiety at the prospect of surgery? Did he recognize raw, inarticulate desire when he saw it? I didn’t see the point of praying. It imparted a weight to my circumstances I didn’t register they actually had. Everyone, after all, had their tonsils out. Nor did prayer in general make much sense to me: prayer was acquiescence to the expectation of adults. God had simply loomed, an immanent feature of the landscape, until this man drew down divinity into the world and into my heart. If he wanted to pray, and it would keep him in the room for another two minutes, then I’d happily comply. I felt sadness that I didn’t share the impulse, since my lacking it separated us, and I wanted nothing to separate me from him, ever. He left as soon as we’d said, “Amen.”

How could he imagine he needed to introduce himself? My cousins–sixteen and obsessed with every male in sight; twelve and dazzled at the threshold of mysteries her older sister had entered into–rehearsed his every movement, his every word at youth group. Their fascination with him flowed through me in a torrent, a desire for a masculinity that felt no more mine than it did theirs: perhaps I wanted no more to possess him than to be him, but I wanted him to the depths of my soul.

And so it’s gone in my life for a further half-century, without my ever really getting to the bottom of why my sexual energy has been deeply stirred at the moments of my most intense devotion, or why the best sexual experiences of my life have felt so much as if I were praying with every cell of my body.

One of the most cogent approaches to the integration of erotic and spiritual life that I’ve encountered is the second in a series of recorded lectures by Michael B. Kelly entitled The Erotic Contemplative: Reflections on the Spiritual Journey of the Gay/Lesbian Christian. (You’ll find another appreciation of the power of his work at www.jesusinlove.blogspot.com.) At the heart of what he has to say, he draws a vivid and fruitful analogy to a great river that divides along its course into two streams, the erotic and the spiritual. We perceive these as separate energies in our lives, he suggests, until through deepening experience we begin to swim back upstream towards their shared Source. The further we travel thus along either of these streams, the more fully we intuit its proximity to the other, until their intermingling rivulets begin to impart an increasingly intense sense of their ultimate common origin in the inexhaustible waters of uncreated Life.


  1. Thank you for a beautiful and moving account of how closely devotion and sexuality are braided together. Whether our religion requires us to deny the pleasure of the body (as Paul insists), or to acknowledge it as part of God’s intentions for mankind (as the Qur’an makes clear), the tremendous power of that pleasure is always what powers the injunction, whether denial or acknowledgement. There is a rich literary history of the power of sexuality and its alignment with devotion to be found in medieval and early modern literature: the usual suspects are John Donne, Dante (see especially the rime petrose), and some of the troubadours (not to mention Persian and Arabic lyric), but here’s a particularly enchanting example from Philip Sidney’s intimate friend, Fulke Greville. Some people read it as parodic (which it isn’t) or ironic (which it is), but I wouldn’t lose sight of its insistence that the divine is only present through the medium of the flesh – if you can grasp it. Maybe sex lets you find the divine by making the sense of time disappear:
    Caelica 56: "All My Senses, Like Beacon's Flame"
    All my senses, like beacon's flame,
    Gave alarum to desire
    To take arms in Cynthia's name
    And set all my thoughts on fire:
    Fury's wit persuaded me,
    Happy love was hazard's heir,
    Cupid did best shoot and see
    In the night where smooth is fair;
    Up I start believing well
    To see if Cynthia were awake;
    Wonders I saw, who can tell?
    And thus unto myself I spake:
    "Sweet God Cupid, where am I,
    That by pale Diana's light,
    Such rich beauties do espy,
    As harm our senses with delight?
    Am I borne up to the skies?
    See where Jove and Venus shine,
    Showing in her heavenly eyes
    That desire is divine.
    Look where lies the milken way,
    Way unto that dainty throne,
    Where while all the Gods would play,
    Vulcan thinks to dwell alone."
    I gave reins to this conceit,
    Hope went on the wheel of lust;
    Fancy's scales are false of weight,
    Thoughts take thought that go of trust.
    I stepped forth to touch the sky,
    I a God by Cupid dreams;
    Cynthia, who did naked lie,
    Runs away like silver streams,
    Leaving hollow banks behind
    Who can neither forward move,
    Nor, if rivers be unkind,
    Turn away or leave to love.
    There stand I, like Arctic pole,
    Where Sol passeth o'er the line,
    Mourning my benighted soul,
    Which so loseth light divine.
    There stand I like men that preach
    From the execution place,
    At their death content to teach
    All the world with their disgrace.
    He that lets his Cynthia lie
    Naked on a bed of play,
    To say prayers ere she die,
    Teacheth time to run away.
    Let no love‑desiring heart
    In the stars go seek his fate,
    Love is only Nature's art.
    Wonder hinders Love and Hate.
    None can well behold with eyes
    But what underneath him lies.

  2. This is utterly charming, and if it was never set as a lute song, it should have been. (Where are the Musicians in Ordinary when you need them?) And I see your point about irony--the coyness doesn't undermine the seriousness of the presupposed understanding that we grasp the transcendent through the flesh, not in spite of it.